This musical remake of the well-remembered 1939 film is better than you may recall. And why not? The rejiggered script is by Terrence Rattigan, a past master on repressed British Prep School Masters* (though he skimps on much actual teaching) while designer Ken Adams & cinematographer Oswald Morris revel in the countryside school settings and the scores of adorable boys in spiffy blazers, straw hats & school ties. The casting is unexpectedly deep with smart star turns in all the supporting roles, and a scene-stealing one from Siân Phillips (Mrs. Peter O’Toole at the time) as a campy actress. As the cold-blooded teacher, warmed to life by his late marriage to a spirited gal, O’Toole, playing older, finds all the sentiment without making a meal of it. Petulia Clark, playing younger, is disadvantaged in being exactly as old as O’Toole in real life, but she largely holds up her end. The best surprise is Herbert Ross, bumped up to full director after almost two decades specializing in musical numbers. He succumbs to a couple of dreamy song montages, but elsewhere shows confidence, and real daring toward the end with a measured pace that gives O’Toole all the time he needs. If only things didn’t keep stopping in their tracks for one of Leslie Bricusse’s punitive (or is it putative?) songs. Clark’s intro is a faithfully awful Music Hall ditty, but that hardly excuses the rest. Even the one nice musical moment, with Clark belting out the school anthem at assembly, is ruined by a final lyric that asks us ‘to fill the world with love my whole life through.’ Oy! Give it a try anyway, just keep the remote handy for emergency Fast-Forwarding.
DOUBLE-BILL: *Of course, there’s always the honest sentiment of the 1939 original with Robert Donat and young Greer Garson. But why not discover Terrence Rattigan’s quietly devastating Prep school masterpiece, THE BROWNING VERSION/’51, starring the Head Master from this film, Michael Redgrave, in his signature role. (The Albert Finney remake from ‘94 isn’t in the same league.) Or, if you must see a musical set in a traditional British Public School there’s MERRY ANDREW/’58 with Michael Kidd’s inventive directing, a tunefully witty score from Saul Chaplin & Johnny Mercer, an immensely charming perf from Danny Kaye . . . and a circus.